Just about every parent experiences some degree of angst as they begin to navigate the college admissions process. Even the mom or dad of an academic superstar will inevitably experience stress and anxiety as they attempt to tackle college visits, testing requirements, FAFSA forms, and the thousand other challenging and time-consuming tasks that comprise the search and admissions process.

Understandably, parents of teens with learning disabilities or ADD/ADHD often experience an additional layer of stress. They have been their child’s biggest advocate throughout his/her K-12 educational journey, and have enjoyed the security of working with IEP teachers and guidance counselors under the purview of powerful federal laws that protect educational rights. Now, the intimidating charge of having to master the ins and outs of an entirely different system looms large.

In this blog, we will lay out the immense challenges faced by college students with disabilities, as chronicled by decades of academic research. After confronting the reality of these brutal facts, we offer advice on how to overcome these obstacles and set your child up for collegiate success.

What the research tells us 

  • Students with a learning disability are half as likely as their non-LD peers to enroll in a four-year college or university after high school.
  • Students with an LD take longer to earn a degree and have a significantly higher drop-out rate than non-LD students.
  • One study found that only a quarter of LD students disclose their disability upon entering post-secondary education. The prevailing reason cited was that the students did not believe their LD label was accurate.
  • Studies have shown that LD students have very little knowledge of what accommodations are actually available to them in a college classroom.
  • In study after study, accepting accommodations has been found to greatly improve college grades and graduation rates.

If the first four bullet points above sparked a degree of fear—that’s okay. It’s the fifth bullet point that can help channel that fear into meaningful action. Helping your teen gain acceptance to college and thrive once on campus, is a process that should begin well before senior year. The four tips we offer below will help to prepare your special needs teen on the path to post-secondary success.

1. Secure accommodations for the SAT/ACT

Let’s begin with a practical step since it is one your will need to take long before college selection gets serious. On both the SAT and ACT, students with special needs can apply for accommodations such as 50%/100%/150% extended time, computer use for essays, extra breaks, or the use of a four-function calculator.

The application is made through your high school’s guidance department which is responsible for providing documentation that demonstrates the need for the desired accommodation(s). Your counselor will fill out a form giving a condensed account of the child’s educational history. When were they identified with a disability? How long has the accommodation been provided through their IEP or 504? Has there been a recent reevaluation by a school psychologist to confirm the continued need for the accommodation?

Fortunately, as of January 1, 2017, the College Board has simplified their process for approval, placing greater trust in the recommendations made by the school-based team. In their own words, “Most students with a formal school-based plan that meets College Board criteria will also have their accommodations approved under the new policy.”

If your teen receives accommodations in his or her high school classroom while taking assessments, we wholeheartedly recommend pursuing comparable accommodations for the SAT/ACT. Studies have found that extended time leads to improved test scores for average-to-high ability students with disabilities; students with lower cognitive functioning, however, do not experience a boost.

2. Shift your mindset

Public school students identified with a disability or medical condition that impacts learning are supported throughout their K-12 experience via one of two legal documents: an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a less-comprehensive 504 Service Agreement. During the K-12 experience, students with disabilities are guaranteed appropriate accommodations through IDEA, a federal law. IDEA does not apply to post-secondary schools, therefore the only mandate colleges are required to follow comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act (which also governs 504 Service Agreements).

While the ADA is powerful law, it simply doesn’t have the same teeth in the educational realm that IDEA wields. The world of K-12 special education is highly-litigious and denials of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) can lead to angry parents and lawyers storming a school’s lobby. In college, it is critical that your child is able to fight for him/herself, respectfully and clearly articulating their needs to professors and disability services staff, as they self-advocate through a more difficult and less student-friendly system.

3. Build your teen’s self-advocacy skills

For any teen with a disability, the development of self-advocacy skills is paramount to succeeding in college. Every student should understand the nature of their disability and be able to articulate its impact on his/her learning process. As chronicled in the previous paragraph, in a public high school, it is incumbent upon the teaching staff to address the student’s needs and make accommodations. Those tables turn 180 degrees in college, as the onus now falls squarely on the student’s shoulders.

Procuring accommodations is not a onetime deal; rather, most colleges require students to resubmit their request prior to each semester. And this process is not always black and white. For example, at Boston College, students granted accommodations by the disabilities office still must meet individually with each professor at the beginning of every semester. Students will need to be clear and convincing in laying out their case for accommodations as the following passage from BU’s website demonstrates:

“If a faculty member believes that the approved accommodations are inconsistent with the academic standards of the course, or would interfere with the faculty member’s methods of instruction and evaluation of student performance, he or she is entitled to raise those concerns with the student in order to come to a satisfactory resolution. The adjustment process is premised upon an open and productive dialogue between faculty member and student.”

If you cannot yet picture your teen engaging in a thoughtful and persuasive dialogue with a Ph.D. level professor regarding their own academic needs, chances are you still have work to do in building their self-advocacy abilities.

4. Explore accommodations offered by colleges

Students with significant learning disabilities or attentional needs must consider disability support services as one of the most important factors in their college search. There are many colleges and universities that offer only a minimal amount of support that may or may not meet your child’s needs. On the other end of the spectrum, some colleges feature highly-structured programs for students with disabilities. These institutions offer specialized programs led by staff certified in working with students with learning disabilities. Students are provided with extra guidance that considers their learning styles and unique needs and usually offers services such as: note-takers, modified coursework, tutoring, mandatory academic counseling, etc. There is typically an additional fee for these extra services.

At most colleges and universities, accommodations are granted on a case-by-case basis and are almost entirely at the discretion of the Office of Disability Services. To improve your case, it is essential that disability documentation be current and conclusive—a specific diagnosis should be provided and recommended accommodations should be clear. In order to avoid unpleasant, post-acceptance surprises, your teen should contact the Office of Disability Services at every prospective school on their list to ensure that their needs can be met.

Key Takeaways

  • The research on special education students in college presents a relatively bleak picture—but don’t fret, with proper planning and the securing of needed supports, your special needs teen will be successful in college.
  • Securing extended time and another necessary accommodations for the SAT/ACT has never been easier. We recommend taking full advantage of this opportunity to show your true intellectual ability under improved conditions.
  • Parents of college-bound teens with a disability should start building their child’s self-advocacy skills in high school by allowing them to take control of their educational process.
  • Accommodations and academic supports vary greatly from institution to institution. Students with disabilities should contact disabilities offices at all of their prospective colleges prior to applying to ensure that their needs can be met.
  • Check out our Dataverse for a list of Colleges with Strong Learning Support Services.
Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).